The story of how the Greek terrorist group November 17 tried to fire rockets at HMS Ark Royal.
On March 31st 1994, HMS Ark Royal steamed in to the Greek port of Piraeus located south-west of the centre of the capital city of Athens. The Invincible-class aircraft carrier, known to her crew as simply “The Ark”, was the fifth vessel in the Royal Navy’s history to carry the proud name which has long held an important place in the hearts of the British people. Commissioned in 1985, she was a great deal smaller than her predecessor operating a mix of helicopters and the revolutionary Sea Harrier Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) combat aircraft. Nevertheless, she still carried 1,200 British sailors as they exercised British foreign policy around the world.
In 1994 that meant operations in the Adriatic to support NATO and UN peacekeeping operations over the former Yugoslavia. Operating under the banner of Operation Grapple (not to be confused with Operation Grapple; the British nuclear tests carried out in the mid-1950s) and then Operation Hamden, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm provided logistical and fast-jet support to British troops on the ground in Bosnia via its helicopters and Sea Harriers respectively.
On January 28th 1994, HMS Ark Royal set sail from Portsmouth under the command of Captain Terry Loughran to rendezvous with her sister-ship, HMS Invincible. The two aircraft carriers met up on February 4th at Gibraltar where they completed a handover of duties before the Ark set sail for the Adriatic to assume her station.
The following interview was given by Captain Loughran during the operation and outlines the vessel’s mission as well as a brief glimpse of life aboard the carrier.
For the next two months the tempo of operations was high. The Ark proved so valuable that port visits to Naples and Toulon were cancelled to keep the vessel at sea. By the end of March, the carrier was given a reprieve from her duties and set sail for Piraeus where many of her crew were looking forward to shore leave. It was also an opportunity for the ship’s engineers to fully inspect the machinery that powered the vessel before they returned to the Adriatic. The visit to Piraeus was to be more than just a break for the crew with the customary tours for British and Greek delegates having been arranged during the stay. As the Ark steamed in to the picturesque Greek port her crew didn’t know of the plan that was being hatched against them on shore.
Greece’s post-World War II period was far more turbulent than most other western European countries. In 1967, the country was rocked by a military coup ‘d’état that would see seven years of dictatorship under the Juntas. In 1973, the general population and especially the Greek youth had become so frustrated with the Junta that they rose up in a mass demonstration of opposition. The Junta reacted harshly and on November 17th 1973 tanks burst through the gates of the National Technical University of Athens where a number of students and staff were on strike. 24 people were killed in the incident many of whom were young students.
The military dictatorship had survived the incident but their days were already numbered and the following year, as a result of pressure from members of the European Economic Community (European Union), the United States and as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Juntas fell. However, the legacy of the tragedy at the university remained. Many of the students protesting were advocates of socialism and were displeased with the pro-capitalist government that formed in the wake of the Juntas. They were especially unhappy about the influence foreigners were having on Greece’s internal policies especially regarding the United States and the UK; Britain had a significant military presence on Cyprus in the 1970s. With the Greek political establishment still rocky they formed themselves in to their own army in an attempt to seize power and they named themselves in honour of those who had fallen at the university. Thus, Revolutionary Organization 17 November (often referred to as simply “November 17” or “17N”) was born in 1975.
They immediately made a name for themselves by attacking the American Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, gunning him down outside his Greek home in full view of his wife. The Greek government tried to downplay the group’s involvement and this resulted in November 17 leaving calling cards with many of their victims’ bodies in the future often outlining why they had targeted that individual. Over the next 27 years the group would conduct a number of high profile assassinations and attacks on government and foreign officials. In the late 1980s these attacks became more sophisticated as the group seized a number of obsolete yet still effective anti-tank weapons from a Greek army depot and configured them to fire from homemade launchers. These were then used to attack foreign businesses and government vehicles including an attack on an armoured riot police bus in 1991 killing one officer and injuring 14 others.
Despite the apparent escalation of the group’s activities, the early- to mid-1990s saw a decline in November 17’s fortunes. The popularity they had enjoyed in the late 1970s and 1980s amongst the Greek population was quickly evaporating thanks to a number of incidents where innocent bystanders were killed or maimed in their operations resulting in their activities becoming more sporadic and with fewer successes. By 1994, morale amongst the group was at an all-time low with members abandoning it in droves. The hardcore remnants therefore planned a series of spectacular and high profile rocket attacks aimed at restoring morale and bringing the group back to the attention of the world’s media. They would be carried out in relatively quick succession and be primarily aimed at foreign targets in Greece. So when Ark Royal, the most well-known warship in the British fleet, docked at Piraeus on March 31st it proved too tempting a target to pass up.
November 17’s operatives began scouting around the dock for a suitable place to launch the attack and spotted a desolate area near a timber yard approximately 200 yards away from where the ship was docked. Two 2.75in rockets were loaded in to metal tubes angled in the direction of the moored 22,000ton British warship which were to be triggered by a timer set to give the terrorists enough time to get a safe distance away from the area which no doubt would become swarmed by police and security services in the wake of an attack. Having returned to their safe houses the terrorists must have waited patiently for the news channels to start pouring out reports of a rocket attack on a British aircraft carrier. They knew the small rockets had little chance of inflicting serious damage on the warship by themselves but if they were lucky enough to have them ignite some of the aviation fuel for the vessel’s air wing or even detonate some of the weapons on-board the result could be catastrophic.
In July 1967, the US Navy carrier USS Forrestal was engaged in combat operations over Vietnam. Sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin, a strike mission was being prepared when a single Zuni 5.0in rocket inadvertently fired from its launcher beneath the wing of an F-4B Phantom II striking the external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk getting ready for launch. The destruction of the Skyhawk resulted in a series of explosions aboard the vessel as fuel and weapons were ignited. By the time the resulting fire was brought under control 134 sailors were dead, 161 more were injured and US$72 million (equivalent to $511 million today) of damage had been inflicted. The threat posed to Ark Royal in 1994 from the two rockets was therefore very real.
Much to the terrorists’ frustration however, the news channels were not reporting an attack on the carrier. As the hours continued to tick by it was becoming increasingly obvious that the rockets had failed to fire either because of a malfunction or because they had been found by police and defused. Either way it was yet another blow to the group’s morale but undeterred they continued on with the attacks they had planned. On April 11th, the day Captain Loughran and his crew left the Greek port behind, November 17 detonated two bombs that exploded about three minutes apart in the northern suburb of Maroussi. The blasts damaged the offices of the American Life Insurance Company (Alico) and the Dutch insurance company Nationale Nederlande.
At around noon the local police in Piraeus received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming that he was passing the timber yard and had seen two strange tube-like objects inside. It has long been suspected that the caller was actually a member of November 17 because just a short while later a local radio station received a call claiming to be from November 17 taking credit for the bombings and an attempted rocket attack on the British aircraft carrier.
Police swooped in on the timber yard and located the two weapons before beginning the process of defusing them. An inspection of the two launchers showed that the triggering mechanism had failed as a result of shorting out during heavy rainfall. It is unclear exactly when the group had set the rockets to fire but the phone call to the radio station said that it had been planned for earlier in the week. In the end, bad luck on the part of November 17 had saved the Ark from attack.